Chapter 5: Should you become a professional photographer?
Switch Careers? Love your job? You love photography but does this mean that you should go into photography as a career? Should you give up a regular paycheck to try your luck at becoming a professional photographer? Those who proclaim that “when you love your job, you never have to work a day in your life” certainly are not saying that you will love every aspect of your business as a photographer. A successful photographer in the business of photography is not just doing photography, he probably is spending 20% of his time doing actual photography work, and the 80% doing marketing, accounting, administration, even delivery work and cleaning up the studio, especially when he is starting by going solo.
Shoot, whether you like it or not. Another factor to consider when weighing the decision of whether or not to go professional is your readiness to do photography that is not of your liking. While hobbyists can choose the kind of photography that they would like to do, a professional photographer – to be rightfully deemed a professional – has a responsibility to attend to his clients’ requirements, whether he likes the job or not, and whether he is in the mood or not. This is not to say that he has to accept every job, but acceptance or rejection is no longer based on his personal whim. He must have good reasons for refusing to do certain jobs, otherwise he may be considered as an unreliable and unprofessional photographer. Especially if the job is within his specialization – just about the only reason he can refuse another job is when he is busy. He cannot bump off one client in favor of another just because he likes the other job or the other client better, or because the offer on the other job is higher.
The romance with photography that one has as a hobbyist could disappear when you need to shoot, whether you like it or not. You might be bored with your day time job, and can’t wait for your weekend to come as weekends are for your photography sideline, but when you’re doing six days of photography, it’s possible that you can’t wait to put down your camera and do some coding. So before you quit your job, try getting an extended leave of absence and try to saturate your days with photography – especially with pretend-job projects that you don’t really care about. How do you feel when your weekend job becomes your full-time job?
Studio or On location? Do you need a studio? Depending on the type of photography you’ve decided you want to get into, you may or may not need a studio. In fact, if you can do without a studio in the beginning, so much the better. If you wish to be a portrait photographer, you could offer your services by suggesting that you do your set ups in your clients’ homes. You could convince them that their homes are the most natural settings for family portraits, and children as well as pets do not have to feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar studio set ups. Toys – for children or pets – are readily available. Your subjects can easily change clothes. They have furniture that you can use for posing them.
On the other hand, photographing subjects in their own homes means that you, as photographer, would have to lug around your equipment, and do set ups for each person or group of persons. Having a studio allows you to set up your lights in a more or less permanent arrangement, with just minor rearrangements. You don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time travelling from one place to another – or getting lost in an unfamiliar place. Instead, you can schedule different clients as close as possible to each other. Of course, the biggest obstacle to setting up your own studio is the expense of renting and maintaining such a place.
Go solo, have a partner or employ your team? Unless you’re going to work as a photojournalist or travel photographer, you probably need at least one other person to work with you. It could be an assistant who will help carry your equipment, or it could be a sales person who will help find customers. And of course, a very capable partner could be both – an assistant and a photographer’s rep.
When John and I started Adphoto, we shared responsibilities. John very early on declared “I just want to shoot!” so that meant that I was to be photographer’s assistant (helping carry, or at least watch, his equipment), assistant photographer (helping out by shooting with a second camera when we were doing photo coverages), photographer’s rep (called an Account Executive or AE in our industry) by presenting his portfolio to art directors and print producers. But it also meant I was everything else – receptionist, secretary, messenger, janitress, and of course, manager.
You know that the business of photography is both photography AND business. Just as photography does not mean only to shoot, but to process, file, and probably edit as well as print, business is also not just sales, but also marketing, accounting and finance, and human resource management. You and your partner, or your employee, if you have one, would have to do all that needs to be done to run your business.
Start Big or Small? I probably cannot give any advice on how to start big. Photography is the only business we have, and we started very small. I would not say that it’s ideal to start small, as we could have avoided a lot of difficulties and challenges – like being under-equipped and under-financed – if only we could afford to start big. We could have risen much faster. We could have avoided doing all the work ourselves, and we could have had regular sleep hours, if only we had the means to start big. But, no regrets. ☺
Where to find capital? The best and first source of capital is your own savings, but you and your partners could pool your funds together so that you could avoid being undercapitalized. Even if you are informally partnering with friends or relatives, and especially if you are bringing in non-cash capital, it is important that you agree on the valuation of these non-cash capital. To avoid misunderstandings, please put down in writing what each partner is bringing into the business. Agree on whether each of you could use each other’s equipment, or if it would still be “to each his own.” Find another method for proper valuation if you are not pooling equipment and other non-cash capital contributions. Agree on how to divide profits, based on what (cash, equipment, furniture, labor, contacts) each brings into the partnership.
Specialize or be Jack-of-all-trades? While being a jack-of-all-trades could bring you jobs to fill up your many vacant hours, it does not help for clients to think of you for specific work. Photographers should aim to be top-of-mind, and being top-of-mind comes easily when you are the only one doing that kind of work. Your ultimate aim, therefore, is not simply to be among the best, but to be the only one capable of doing the kind of photography that you do. John is always trying to reinvent himself, because followers follow closely, right at your heels, although when you make great strides and bold steps, it may take a bit of time before the copycats can follow in your footsteps.
At the beginning when we were doing product shots, we belonged to a pack of photographers, and could not “float to the top.” There were just too many of us who were capable of lighting boxes, bottles and cans. But we soon gained the reputation for shooting highly-reflective, and therefore problematic, foil packages, and we started to get more of those kinds of shoots.
Then, we expanded our studio kitchen, we attracted more food set ups. Foodstylists preferred working with us because they had more room to put down their ingredients, tools and props, and they were just more comfortable with more elbow room. We also equipped our studio kitchen with a sink, stove, an electric oven, a microwave, and in addition to counters, we had lots of folding tables that we could set up or put away according to their needs.
When other photographers started to offer similar kitchen set ups, we had to stay in lead role by offering something that nobody else offered. In 1992, that was the first studio for car photography. There were already car studios but they were owned and operated by film/video companies, but Adphoto was the first to open a car photography studio for print advertising. It was such a giant leap for a print photographer that it took our nearest competitor five years to offer a similar size and set up of a studio.
Other Plans after College. Whether to get right into the business of photography, or explore other opportunities after getting out of college is up to you. There is no right or wrong way. Getting into other things, or getting work experiences elsewhere could give you broader and deeper insights.
Apprentice with another photographer? Another decision you need to make is whether it would advance your career if you postponed starting on your own, by working first with a more established photographer.
There are pros and cons. Working with an established studio will provide you with insights on the day-to-day challenges of a professional photographer, introduction to systems and procedures, and getting introduced to possible future clients. You may even be given the opportunity to join the company as one of its owners. On the other hand, another photographer may put his “stamp” on you that you may never get to shake off, even when you are on your own.
Think before you leap, or just jump in? It’s your choice, of course, but try to answer the above questions so you could assess your readiness for a challenging career in professional photography.